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Trutanich, Taggers & the Madness of Bad Injunctions

August 25th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


Monday, the LA Times’ Scott Gold reported that,
in an interview with new LA City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, Trutanich said that, through the use of a civil injunction similar to a gang injunction, he planned to give police the power to arrest and jail taggers just for hanging out together. Not for tagging. Or for planning to tag. But just for talking to each other. About whatever. School. The Dodgers. The merits of this spray paint over that one.

Now, just to be clear, with this new notion, Trutanich is not talking about gang members who tag, which is a whole different deal, and a provocative and dangerous business. The city attorney says he intends to aim his legal guns at graffiti crews: Guys (or young women) who spray paint their nicknames on walls, light posts, and freeway overpasses as a form of risk-courting, illegal sport.

He wants to slap those kids and young adults with the equivalent of a gang injunction, which means they can be arrested, in essence, just for being a tagger. Or, more specifically, for being a tagger who is standing with someone else who has been labeled a tagger, whether he or she is—in fact— a tagger or not..

(Functionally, a gang injunction works like a restraining order. But, instead of barring contact with an individual, it bans certain activities by purported members of a particular group named in the order.)

I am not, by the way, defending tagging. I hate that the proprietors of small, family-owned stores have to repaint their walls over and over, and that some of LA’s most beautiful murals have been repeatedly defaced by graffiti. I have often wished I could exchange more than a few terse words with the idiots who kept tagging up Frank Romero’s gorgeous “Going to the Olympics” mural that used to reside along the Hollywood Freeway. (Of course, it was CalTrans that actually managed to destroy the artwork. But that’s another topic altogether.)


I even pretty much buy the whole “broken windows” theory. (This is the theory of crime prevention popularized by criminologists, George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson. The idea is that if one controls the small, quality-of-life crimes in any given neighborhood—the metaphorical broken windows—community members feel less helpless and more able to “reinforce the informal control mechanisms of the community itself.” When community members began exerting their own control, goes the theory, the big crimes will lessen as well. In many of LA’s communities, graffiti is the most obvious form of broken window to address.)

However we already have laws about spray-painting messages on property not your own. In fact, ever since that dream statute for the law-and-order obsessed, Proposition 21, passed in 2000—lowering the ceiling for felony vandalism from its former $50,000 threshold to $400—comparatively minor outings by the young and the foolish toting spray cans may be prosecuted as felonies with up to three years in prison.

One would think that would be enough.

But apparently one would be wrong.

“I’m going to put together an end-of-days scenario for these guys,” Trutanich said. “If you want to tag, be prepared to go to jail. And I don’t have to catch you tagging. I can just catch you . . . with your homeboys.”


In Sacramento, our legislators are battling desperately to find some way to cut California’s eat-everything corrections budget by incarcerating fewer people in this prison benighted state. And now our new city attorney wants criminalize and lock up taggers who hang out with each other—as part of some half-hatched scare-em-straight plot?

This is really, really not an encouraging omen.

When Gold questioned Trutanich about why he was “proposing to adopt the same tactics police use on the city’s toughest criminals against people who are typically viewed as more of an annoyance,” the city attorney had a ready answer.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “they are no less of a gang.”

To support that contention, he pointed to several incidents in which people have been shot and killed after confronting graffiti vandals in residential areas — a Valinda man in 2006, for instance, and a Pico Rivera woman a year later.

Yeah. Well. About that “no less than a gang” thing, Mr. City Attorney: At the end of the day, as you put it, with all due respect, that just isn’t the case.

Here’s the deal: When tagging crews start packing firearms and shooting at innocent people—or at each other— we no longer call them taggers. That’s banging, dude. One is no longer in outlaw graffiti artist territory; one has moved, by definition, into gangsterland.

Gold talked to the ACLU’s Peter Bibring who doesn’t think Trutanich can pull off this idea of a tagger injunction, that it will be found unconstitutional. I think Bibring is right. There is much about even the run-of-the mill gang injunction that skates perilously close to the edge of constitutionality. I suspect this tagger injunction plan will topple easily right off the edge. (See the article for more on that.) If all this goes forward, we will find out, I guess.

Right this minute, LA has 43—count em—43 injunctions against gangs.. When Trutanich was elected in many of us had hoped that he would start dialing back some of the injunctions as no longer needed, while keeping the most relevant ones and making sure that those were sharply targeted at the right people and gangs. This tagger idea is philosophically a huge step in the exact opposite direction. So what exactly is going on?

Mr. City Attorney…. um.. Nuch….. I met you a few months ago. Remember?

We had a nice chat. You seemed intelligent and sensible. (Not all power mad, or anything.)

Thus, I’m going to hope that you merely lost your head a little with this crazy tagger injunction idea.

Okay, fine. It can happen. You may have a Do-Over. No problem.

But just one.
PS: The Daily News has a short editorial on the issue.
PPS: I have no idea how the comments got closed for a time on this post. (Ghosts, I tell you.) But as you can see, they’re open now. A thank you to Woody for flagging the problem.

Posted in City Attorney, Injunctions, law enforcement | 18 Comments »